News | LGBTQ rights in Russia

Talk discusses “silent revolution” in queer communities

Content warning: homophobia, physical violence

On Wednesday, November 23, Alexander Kondakov, an assistant professor of sociology at European University at Saint Petersburg, gave a talk entitled “Why No One Goes to Pride Parade: LGBT Hate Policy in Russia,” at New Chancellor Day Hall.

The talk discussed the “ways in which the [Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (U.S.S.R.)] leveraged power to exercise control over every aspect of citizens’ lives,” and the effect on LGBTQ Russians, as outlined by its Facebook event page. In relation to this, Kondakov traced Russia’s social and legal history to shed light on contemporary LGBTQ grassroots organizations, their exclusion from public discourse in Russia, and their hopes for reinvention.

The talk was hosted by OutLaw at McGill, a club “for queer (including but not limited to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, tran(s)sexual, two-spirited, asexual, intersex, pansexual, questioning, and anyone who identifies with the queer moniker) students and their straight allies,” according to their website.

Kondakov argued that the trouble began when the authoritarian Soviet Union government collapsed the distinction between public and private space. Since public space was subject to total government control, the privacy of its citizens was compromised and the freedom of their sex lives came under threat. By the 1930s the Soviet government, once openly allowing homosexual practices, had returned to its pre-revolutionary homophobic policies.

Domination of public and private life produced a culture of silence around sexuality. This made discussing queer issues, even in secrecy, difficult. Nonetheless, “parallel spaces” emerged where queer individuals could form a community. Kondakov said that while the “KGB and police patrolled parks” homosexual men and women were met with little interference.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s meant that Russia, in order to fall in line with Western norms, had to drop its anti-homosexual laws. Yet this did not bring significant change to a culture that had been silenced for so long, said Kondakov.

In an interview with The Daily, Kondakov said the social situation regarding queer rights in Russia was bad enough that he thought “breaking that silence would be a very important move […] But, of course, when the discussion was opened, we [were] all faced with hatred, intolerance, and the bans of propaganda.”

During his talk, he said that the Pride parades in Russia devolve each year into “a mess of abuse and violence,” because of Russia’s introduction of “gay propaganda” laws in 2013, which prevents the public from promoting “non-traditional” values.

Homosexuality was not criminalized, but largely omitted from legal discourse. However, it is strongly implied in the term “non-traditional values,” in much legal discourse and continues to be interpreted as such in disputes, Kondakov said in his talk.

“Breaking that silence would be a very important move […] But, of course, when the discussion was opened, we [were] all faced with hatred, intolerance, and the bans of propaganda.”

According to an article by Kondakov called “Resisting the Silence: The Use of Tolerance and Equality Arguments by Gay and Lesbian Activist Groups in Russia,” LGBTQ people are not protected under anti-discrimination laws, nor are they mentioned elsewhere in the legal code. Kondakov believes that judges could change that by defending the queer community within the official category of “social group,” but so far they have not done so.

Kondakov told The Daily that at least two cases of murder, in which Russian men lured suspected homosexual peers to private locations and murdered them, “[were] not covered at all” by mainstream Russian media. He believes the murderers’ conviction and sentencing did not receive widespread attention in the Russian media because it did not fit the official anti-queer narrative.

“Hate crimes in Russia are often private,” he said in his talk, and there is little incentive to publicize them.

While laws and social norms have consolidated this silence around sexuality to oppress the queer community, Kondakov says the government has failed to censor the internet.

Indeed, Kondakov told The Daily that “virtual networks [are] much powerful now than any material spaces.”

But on VK, the most popular social network in Russia, Kondakov – an openly gay academic – was labeled a “pederast.” During his talk, he explained that when he complained to authorities, he was told that the group that labeled him was private so the post could not be taken down.

“Hate crimes in Russia are often private.”

It was ironic, Kondakov thought, that in a country where public universities purge queer staffers and popular media use anti-queer slurs to discredit politicians and public figures, he was discouraged from pursuing his own protection.

Nonetheless he thinks the future is hopeful: a “silent revolution” is growing. New strategies are emerging in “parallel spaces,” Kondakov said, like internet-based queer communities.

When asked what Canadians should do, he encouraged them to create a positive online presence because “any kind of support is really crucial, when people feel they’re isolated it’s very important just to hear good words. […] It should be done as much as possible.”

OutLaw contributes to this process by providing “a social space where people can get together and feel safe to talk about issues that affect LGBT people,” OutLaw VP of Communications Dylan Gibbs told The Daily.

“Any kind of support is really crucial, when people feel they’re isolated it’s very important just to hear good words. […] It should be done as much as possible.”

In an interview with The Daily, OutLaw co-president Frédérique Bossé said that one of the most pressing issues in Canada are trans rights in legal discourse. She believes Canada “still [has] a lot to do in terms of transgender individuals. ”

She added that while the McGill Faculty of Law presents various opportunities to pursue critical legal studies, there is always progress to be made.


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